The 2021 Ravens will be remembered for an unrelenting run of injuries as well as the six-game losing streak that dropped them from the top spot in the conference in early December to last place in the AFC North by season’s end.
Baltimore played 12 one-possession games this season, two fewer than the NFL-record-tying 14 the Ravens played in 2015. But unlike that 5-11 squad that went an unlucky 5-9 in one-score contests, this year’s team finished 6-6 in single-score games, which is pretty much in line with what you’d expect over the long haul. While the best teams tend to beat up on inferior opponents and play other high-quality teams close — see the 2019 and the 2020 Ravens — there isn’t a dramatic difference between most NFL teams in a given season with one-score outcomes being so common.
Still, it’s remarkable to think how differently this season could have played out with the addition or subtraction of a play here or there, a reminder of just how much variance goes into a schedule with only 17 data points. On top of that, the order of the Ravens’ one-score results couldn’t have been more unusual as they dropped the opener in overtime to Las Vegas, won their next six one-score games, and lost their last five decided by a single possession. Even if a coin happens to land on heads six straight times, you wouldn’t expect it to land tails on each of the next five flips to follow.
While the Ravens may not have passed the eyeball test of an AFC-leading 8-3 team entering Week 13, they weren’t as horrendous as their 0-6 finish either with five of those losses being decided by a combined eight points. Even with star quarterback Lamar Jackson missing roughly a third of the season, the Ravens still came excruciatingly close to sneaking into the playoffs, a testament to the resolve of an injury-ravaged team.
The late-game 2-point try decisions made by head coach John Harbaugh have come under great scrutiny and continue to be debated weeks later, but much happened over the course of 60-minute ballgames before those conversion attempts. An overwhelming theme of the 2021 season should be how the big play victimized the Ravens all season and eluded their offense too often over the second half of the season.
This season marked the first time in franchise history that the Ravens failed to register a single pass or run of 50 or more yards. They didn’t return a kickoff, punt, interception, or fumble 50-plus yards either. In contrast, Baltimore allowed 11 plays from scrimmage of 50 or more yards as well as a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. A minus-11 turnover ratio ranking 28th in the NFL certainly didn’t help swing the win probability in their direction either.
Simply put, it’s very difficult to win consistently when you have to score in methodical fashion, give up so many chunk plays to opponents, and are unable to steal possessions.
If the aforementioned 50-yard plays were too arbitrary for your taste, the Ravens allowed 74 pass plays of 20 or more yards and 16 completions of 40 or more yards, both marks ranking worst in the league. For context, they allowed 85 completions of 20 or more yards and 13 passes of 40-plus yards in the previous two seasons combined. Needless to say, giving up the big play was a problem all year as the Ravens lost three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters days before the season opener and several other key defenders along the way to make matters worse.
Offensively, the Ravens did rank a respectable 13th with 54 completions of 20-plus yards this season, but 36 of those came over their first eight games and they had just six pass plays of 40-plus yards all season (tied for 26th), reflecting how much the passing game faded after a red-hot start. Jackson completed four or more passes of 20-plus yards in seven of the first eight contests — looking like an MVP candidate in the process — but the Ravens had more than two only once in their final nine games as the fourth-year quarterback began struggling and eventually injured his ankle, giving way to backups Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson over the final five games. Wide receiver Marquise Brown’s big-play decline stood out in particular with just one of his 15 receptions of 20 or more yards coming after Week 9.
The ground game wasn’t dramatically better despite registering 15 runs of 20-plus yards to rank sixth in the league. The problem was that being such a step down from the combined 54 runs of 20 or more yards over the previous two seasons, a reflection of how mortal this year’s rushing attack was compared to those historically great outfits.
After a promising start of seven runs of 20-plus yards over the first three games of the 2021 season, the Ravens had only three over their next 13 contests before gashing Pittsburgh for five in Week 18. They also had just one rush of 40-plus yards all season — Latavius Murray’s 46-yard touchdown in the finale — after recording five apiece in 2020 and 2019.
Generally speaking, the running game just doesn’t move the meter that much in today’s game unless it’s special. And as many feared, the preseason losses of running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards proved to be too much to overcome for a rush-first offense.
To be clear, big plays aren’t a necessity for winning, evident by the fact that the record-setting 2019 offense had 67 plays of 20-plus yards compared to 69 this season. But efficiency then needs to be through the roof, something this year’s offense certainly couldn’t claim with its weekly slow starts and third-down struggles.
Combining that diminishing offensive explosiveness and efficiency with a defense that so often gave up big plays at the worst moments made it no wonder that the Ravens played so many close games and continued coming up excruciatingly short down the stretch.
No matter what changes the Ravens might make to their coaching staff and roster in the weeks and months ahead, swinging that big-play ratio in a more favorable direction will be a must to rebound in 2022.